Cathy Young: What is cancel culture and is it really a problem?

October 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

I don’t know how I’ve missed the writing of Cathy Young for so long, but now that I’m reading it I’m quite impressed. Although she shares my view about the problems of excessive wokeness, she also is tempered in her criticism and careful to call out miscreants on both Left and Right. In her article in The Bulwark published yesterday, she describes her view of “cancel culture” and rejects the arguments of those on the Left who say that the whole phenomenon is overblown: just a few overblown incidents that have been aimed mostly at famous people, like J. K. Rowling—people who can’t really be cancelled.

Click to read—it’s free:

We all know of wokies who say that there’s no such thing as cancel culture, or that the problem is exaggerated (see here and here, both responses to Anne Applebaum’s essay on cancel culture in The Atlantic. “The New Puritans“, which I also wrote about here).

Young notes that there are cancellations on both sides: on the Right, for instance, the move to cancel the Dixie Chicks—now just “The Chicks”—for criticizing G. W. Bush onstage, or the attempted boycott of the “Ellen” t.v. show after she declared she was gay. But after defining cancel culture, Young finds it more pervasive on the Left. You can see this by looking at FIRE’s “disinvitation database” in the last six or seven years to see which side most often deplatforms college speakers. (Earlier than that Right and Left were roughly equally culpable.) But Young sees cancel culture as going far beyond these disinvitation attempts. Further, disinvitation occurs only after a speaker is invited; sensibly, refusal to invite someone isn’t necessarily “cancel culture”—though it could be:

Critics of the idea of “cancel culture” have a point when they argue that pushback against speech and expression we find morally offensive is a vital part of free speech. While disinvitations should be avoided on principle, there is nothing wrong with forcefully arguing that a college campus should not extend a speaking invitation to a far-right hate peddler like Ann Coulter or a progressive white-guilt grifter like Robin DiAngelo. Likewise, while taking down published articles should be a no-no except in case of egregious factual errors, plagiarism, or other misconduct, it’s not illiberal to argue that respected media outlets should not platform certain odious views, whether they’re unabashedly racist anti-immigration tirades or arguments that sexual liberation should extend to pedophiles. But it also seems clear that in a liberal society, the range of truly “cancelable” viewpoints should remain as narrow as possible, and the lines should be very carefully drawn.

So on to Young’s definition of cancel culture, which is really a list of its three main characteristics:

Current “cancel culture” differs from the “normal” push-and-pull of speech-related pressures in several significant ways. First, the internet and the social media in particular have enabled much more public speech by people who aren’t journalists, politicians, activists, or other public figures—potentially exposing them to retaliation for speech that offends. Second, the internet and social media have become highly effective vehicles for collective retaliation for disapproved-of speech or conduct. (Gurri’s Liberal Currents article discusses these developments.) Third, a version of progressivism that stresses the “harm” done by very broadly defined racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted speech and expression—and even routinely labels such expression as “violence”—has moved from the margins of left-wing academia to the mainstream of universities, media, and other cultural institutions.

In such a framework, the suppression of speech becomes not just defensible but virtuous. Consider, for instance, this remarkable statement issued in 2018 by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who challenges feminist orthodoxy on such issues as “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon:

We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. . . . Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.

It is this “there is no debate here” assertion that really characterizes Left-wing cancel culture: it’s the assertion that certain subjects are taboo to discuss, for there is only one correct opinion. An example, mentioned by Andrew Sullivan last week, was the flat assertion of trans activists that “Trans women are WOMEN in every way.” If you try to debate that, good luck to you.

Now are these characteristics more common on the Right or the Left? Counting up incidents isn’t a good way to asses that, says Young, because what really counts is how cancellation has affected the political climate on each side—to what extent have cancellations chilled speech? As I said, Young, like me, sees a more censorious climate on the Left (my emphasis below):

There are also good reasons to be concerned about some of the recent laws seeking to curb “critical race theory” and other progressive ideas in schools, especially when those laws target higher education. We should absolutely be worried about right-wing authoritarianism.

But in some ways, progressive cancel culture has a much broader reach. It does not simply retaliate against speech by ideological opponents; it also quite often targets progressives or neutrals for sometimes accidental transgressions against the new norms of identity-based social justice. It does not simply punish opposition but demands allegiance, including repentance by transgressors. In that sense, the analogies to Stalinism and Maoism, much derided by the “anti-anti-cancel culture” crowd, have some validity. This is especially true since, in the last few years, social justice or “wokeism” really has become something of a party line not only in progressive activism and academia but in most of the established media, a wide range of cultural institutions, and large corporations: Witness, for instance, the rapid spread and embrace of the unpronounceable “Latinx,” which is used as a self-description by only 3 percent of Hispanics in the United States and seems like a blatant example of linguistic imperialism, but is considered woke because it signals not only gender neutrality but gender-inclusiveness beyond male and female. “Cancel culture” is, as Bari Weiss points out in Commentary, only the “justice system” of a larger revolution that seeks to overhaul personal attitudes and behavior through messages in the media, schools and universities, and corporate diversity programs.

I will give only one more short quote in deference to “fair usage”.

. . . the databases may drastically undercount such incidents, since many ideologically motivated firings are never publicized. (It also should be noted that the “Canceled People” list is a grab-bag of very disparate cases, from different countries, that include Trump’s Twitter ban, Liz Cheney’s loss of her Republican leadership position for criticizing Trump, and firings of transgender people for coming out on the job.) Nonetheless, he concludes that even if the real number is far higher, it ultimately points to a small problem.

Yet this reasoning underestimates the chilling effect of “cancellations.” And it does not take into account low-level and unquantifiable intimidation in the form of reprimands, suspensions, and other penalties short of dismissal.

And then Young runs through a number of such incidents that have led to chilling. Cancellation of young adult fiction books, for instance, has had a chilling effect on the genre, with “sensitivity readers” now being mandatory in the industry. The well known journalist Jesse Singal, who has questioned the “trans women are women” trope, as well as the rush to give kids drugs and surgery who have gender identity issues, has, says Young, “been the target of a creepy smear campaign.” Though Singal has survived, even thrived, lesser known journalists would surely want to keep their mouths shut on these issues.

And I’ll add one bit of data here: a survey of college students by the Heterodox Academy showed that “In 2020, 62% of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, up from 55% in 2019.” You can read the whole report here, and see which topics are especially incendiary.  Other surveys give similar results.

And that’s just for college students (it also applies to professors). What about journalists? If you work at the New York Times or the Washington Post, and have any controversial, non-woke opinions, the firings of staffers who have expressed them will prompt you to keep your gob shut. And so it goes for almost all white-collar institutions. Young concludes that “while some of the opposition to left-wing liberalism has regrettably gotten entangled with right-wing forces at least as illiberal, the liberal and centrist pushback against the ‘new puritans’ is not only healthy but essential.

Yes, essential. If we do nothing, in ten years we’ll have a country not worth living in—at least in my view. That is, unless the metastasizing insanity I describe every day somehow goes away.

h/t: Paul

24 thoughts on “Cathy Young: What is cancel culture and is it really a problem?

  1. I believe the tide is starting to turn on Wokeness. It’s happening because it is becoming part of the national political discourse. Regular folk, centrists, are starting to be aware of it and are fighting back. Unfortunately, the Left is going to lose some elections before they realize how much it is hurting their prospects. We’ve already seen how “Defund the police” failed miserably as a campaign promise. Now Critical Race Theory in schools is being used against Democrats running for office. This kind of thing is going to be repeated running up to the 2022 elections unless Democrats wise up fast, which seems unlikely. We have to keep up the fight.

  2. Two other aspects of cancel culture should be kept in mind. (1) Many universities have instituted an
    anonymous “bias reporting” system so as to institutionalize the practice of snitching Under this system, frivolous anonymous complaints about any departure from woke orthodoxy can embroil an academic in, at the least, a lot of tiresome meetings and paperwork—or worse. The “bias reporting tools” are unavoidably reminiscent of the USSR legend of the sainted kiddie Pavlik Morozov, who supposedly denounced his father to the GPU for harboring counter-revolutionary sentiments.

    (2) In cancel culture, any deviation from the current D/E/I orthodoxy (such as challenging the doctrine that this or that STEM discipline is riddled with “white supremacy”) is pictured as causing harm. This argument is the invariable basis for overriding free speech considerations. As Haidt and Lukianoff have pointed out, this recourse to therapeutic language grows straight out of the cult of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” that became fashionable in the 2000s. So cancel culture is intimately connected to the strangely fearful, paranoid outlook of this kind of “safetyism”. It will be interesting to investigate the origins of that syndrome—once the present mania subsides enough to permit the pursuit of woke studies in Psychology Departments. Of course, if one tried to do so now, it would undoubtedly elicit anonymous complaints through the “bias reporting tool” system.

  3. You ask me, these people Ms. Young discusses all need to follow the trenchant advice of deejay Señor Love Daddy in the closing scene of Mr. Lee’s Do the Right Thing:

  4. I was looking at the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I was thinking that if we just adopted it and instead of the Counsel of Guardians, we call it the Counsel of Diversity, with the State safely in the hands of the Diversity Ayatollahs, we would finally achieve progress. I am working on the Hadith of the Prophet Kendi as I write.

  5. There always was cancel culture, just different people doing it. I remember the days when I would have lost my job for talking about being gay and risked up to 14 years in prison every time I spent the night with my boyfriend. I still considered Australia a country worth living.in.

    There was a problem, we got busy and fixed it (at least in some countries)

    There is another problem now, so fix it.

  6. In Australia two of the most vocal opponents of cancel culture are media figures Chris Kenny and Rita Panahi.

    And yet they led a twitter mob to have a journalist fired because he mentioned that Australian soldiers had been involved in war crimes during the first world war. Since both Kenny and Panahi are employees of the Rupert Murdoch empire and the minister who had the power to get the journalist fired had Prime Ministerial ambitions, they were successful in getting the journalist sacked. They immediately block anyone on social media who asks them about this.

    They also joined in on having a young writer sacked from her government job and hounded out of the country because she used the ANZAC motto to make a political point (even though she immediately deleted the post and apologised).

    You see the point. They were both enthusiastically in favour of the concept of cancel culture, they just didn’t like it when people they disagreed with used the tactic.

    This is the same thing Cathy Young seems to be talking about.

    If cancel culture is to be tackled then we need to ensure that it is cancel culture itself that we are against, and not only when it is being used by people we disagree with.

  7. The assertion that “Cancel Culture” would not exist has to be utterly ridiculous. It cannot be true: it’s trivial to come up with examples where someone or something was cancelled after protest and petitioning. People who still maintain they see, hear, smell nothing of canceling are typically themselves woke and so this denial becomes akin to other forms of motivated denialism, where you wonder if the person in question is intellectually incompetent or dishonest. It’s typically the latter: the one trick pony of them, learned from the postmodernists a generation earlier, to always deny everything, to make any interaction cheap for them, and expensive for you. They rather write ten blog posts a day how they are out of spoons and under siege, rather than getting around just one time to lay out their views or make a case for their activism.

    The more you know, the more comical it gets. There is one scene in Austin Power’s film that always reminds me of woke denialism, which is a genre with a long tradition by now. Recall that Pharyngula was always a nice, and friendly comment section. Watson never called for a boycott of Dawkins. The McGraw accusations never happened. The crowd there absolutely never routinely and casually used graphic sexualised insults in their comments, sometimes whilst arguing that everything needs “trigger warnings” because people can easily be triggered and retraumatised and you should be mindful. You can’t make this up. And so early on, the whole situation was like a never-ending, decade-long sequence of penis-pump gags. Oh, that never happened you say? Well, what about this very blog post where she literally says…

    The comical bit here is that the whole cancel business was the novel idea of an entire movement that proudly called itself “Callout Culture”. One famous campaign was the me2 hashtag “movement”. This makes it even more ridiculous, because the same people are then immensely proud of that campaign when asked in a different situation. Features of this made it into 4th Wave Feminism, also the wikipedia entry, intersectionality and so on, all things that are under the woke umbrella in much the same way post-structuralism, anti-colonialism etcetera were once put under the “postmodernism” headline. It‘s just silly. The “so-and-so Culture” naming convention might even be a carryover from this family of “movements”, also “Woke Culture” originally.

    Notoriously, postmodernists also constantly denied they were a thing, and could never be pinned down, even though everything about them quickly condensed into a stereotype.

    Now, cancelling is a complex topic, it does have a long history, especially on the Right (it’s part of the Right-Wing essence to be a raging hypocrite). It‘s also free speech to call for boycotts, social protests are important and so on. I’m not against making disapproval known, or against boycotts.

  8. Supporters of the cancelling tactic will point to Milo Yiannopoulos and will “look, it works”.

    No-one could accuse Yiannopoulos of being a helpless victim. In Australia he was championed and promoted by the mainstream media, by the largest, most powerful media outlet in Australia. Columnist extolled his intellectual powers and downplayed his unfortunate remarks supporting pedophilia (for which even Breitbart cancelled him).

    He was invited into the Federal Parliament House to address politicians there, a privilege very few Australians will ever enjoy.

    They will point to the fact that Yiannopoulos is now an obscure irrelevant figure desperately trying to say shocking things in an an attempt to get noticed and say this is a success of “cancelling”.

    I would respond that this was always going to happen to him and would have happened sooner if people hadn’t tried to cancel him. Indeed someone like Yiannopoulos probably only speaks up in the first place if he hadn’t been confident of getting protests against him.

  9. Another example. Richard Swinburne gives a speech in which he claims that homosexuality is a disability which could potentially be medically treaded.

    Philosopher Jason Stanley responds in a *private* Facebook page using some rude words, not directed at Swinburne, but to those with anti-gay views in general. His words are screenshotted and widely circulated in an outrage campaign against him. Rod Dreher calls Stanley’s private remarks an attack on free speech.

    That, to me, is absurd. Dreher is arguing that someone should not have the freedom to make private remarks about a public figure because these would impinge on the public figures right to free speech, even though no-one can explain why privately saying “f— you” about people with a particular view stops them from having that view.

    Yes even the liberal anti-woke philosophers enthusiastically joined in on howling down Stanley and others for these remarks. A respected liberal philosophy professor, for example, effectively arguing that a gay person does not have the right to privately criticise those with anti-gay views because that somehow would impinge on the freedom of people to express anti gay views.

    So whose free speech is being impinged?

    Of course Stanley is called the villain of the piece because, by criticising a Christian’s anti-gay views, he has committed the terrible crime of being “woke”.

    Here is a clear case of the anti-cancelling sentiment being used to attempt to cancel a gay professor for privately expressed views,

  10. So what’s your point exactly with this anecdote ?

    That the wokes are actually the real victims of cancel culture ?
    That wouldn’t be surprising I guess since it would be perfectly in line with the woke attitude of always claiming to be the victim of various “harms”, “microaggressions”, etc…

    1. I am not sure how you came to the conclusion that I was saying that wokes are the real victims of cancel culture. No, obviously I am saying nothing like that.

      For a start I don’t think that saying “F— those — h-les” about people expressing anti-gay views in a private conversation could be described as “woke”.

      Here is the point. When people talk about cancel culture, is it really cancel culture that they oppose or are they angry at people they consider “woke” and are perfectly happy with cancel culture when someone they disagree with is being cancelled?

      If the second then those people are not really against cancel culture.

      It is absurd to suppose that a person saying “F— those —h-lles, seriously” in a private Facebook conversation could be considered “cancelling” Richard Swinburne

      On the other hand copying those private remarks and publicly circulating them with outraged comments implying that they are incompatible with someone being a philosopher is clearly an attempted cancelling.

      And yet the liberal, anti-cancelling professor joined in the cancelling. Because it wasn’t really cancel culture or call-out culture he was against. It was alleged “wokeness” he was against.

      1. “Here is the point. When people talk about cancel culture, is it really cancel culture that they oppose or are they angry at people they consider “woke” and are perfectly happy with cancel culture when someone they disagree with is being cancelled?”

        I see, so you were presenting this anecdote in support of the claim that those criticizing cancel culture are in fact hypocrites because some of them have also sometimes cancelled people.

        I personaly see no reason to doubt that people who oppose cancel culture do indeed oppose cancel culture per se. I certainly do. I don’t see how claiming hidden motives is justified at all. And certainly not very charitable or productive it seems to me.

        Besides, it is quite clear that the woke are the ones that perfected this unacceptable behavior to the point of making it an art form and engage overwhelmingly more often in this toxic tactic than people on the right.

        About the anecdote itself, I’m not aware of the details, so I can’t comment as to whether or not it qualifies as “cancelling”. But in any case, someone hurling insults and cursing online (privately or not) like Stanley apparently did, certainly qualifies as disgraceful, obnoxious, bad mannered, and unworthy of being a philosopher (lover of wisdom…).

        1. “I see, so you were presenting this anecdote in support of the claim that those criticizing cancel culture are in fact hypocrites because some of them have also sometimes cancelled people.”

          Again, no. I didn’t say that at all. Maybe stick with the stuff I did say.

          “But in any case, someone hurling insults and cursing online (privately or not) like Stanley apparently did, certainly qualifies as disgraceful, obnoxious, bad mannered, and unworthy of being a philosopher (lover of wisdom…).”

          I see. So you are more or less agreeing with those calling him out that he should not have the job he does because he uses naughty words privately.

          Maybe that is an American thing. We have a much less puritan attitude to swearing here in Australia. We swear all the time. Even the philosophers. Especially the philosophers. So I guess we are all disgraceful, obnoxious, bad mannered and unworthy of being philosophers. We will have to forgo logical positivism and stick to the sheep dip.

          So I take it that you think there was nothing wrong with calling him out across the internet for his private remarks.

          1. “Again, no. I didn’t say that at all. Maybe stick with the stuff I did say.”

            So your point is not to denounce some sort of double standard (which is what I meant by hypocrisy in this context) ? If not then I really don’t understand what you’re point is.

            “So I take it that you think there was nothing wrong with calling him out across the internet for his private remarks.”

            I never said that I approve whathever happened or was done in that particular case, I don’t know anything about that case.

            What I did say is that if this person did indeed say what you claim he said, that is, insulting people sharing one of Richard Swinburn’s opinion by calling them “f…. a..h.les”, then he was clearly behaving in a way that is to me unworthy of someone who claim to be a philosopher (lover of wisdom), and in fact unworthy of being called a gentleman period.

            That’s just not the kind of attitude sophisticated adults debating ideas should display in my opinion. Which is of course not the same as saying that because I find this kind of behavior distasteful, I would approve of the way some people reacted to it and/or treated the guy because of this. No one is immune to an occasional lapse of judgement and we should be charitable in the way we react to it.

            Anyway, as you said, we seem to have different standards of what constitute civil behavior and what doesn’t…

        2. This is what I am trying to understand.

          Calling someone out and dragging him across the internet for publicly making anti-gay remarks and suggesting he is unfit to be an Oscars host is bad.

          But calling someone out and dragging him across the internet for privately objecting to anti-gay remarks using some naughty words and suggesting he is unfit to be a philosopher is OK?

          I am confused.

    2. And let me add that I am enthusiastically iand sincerly n favour of people like Richard Swinburne having every possible opportunity to express their views. In fact I wish they could have wider circulation.

      Funnily enough the anti-woke folks seem to hate me all the more when I say this. It is as though I am not playing the game.

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